New Year Issue: Fiction

Three-Seven-Seven And the Blue Gay Gene

Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novels include English, August : An Indian Story, The Mammaries of the Welfare State and Fairy Tales at Fifty
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"The case history of 377 is gripping; it reflects what we have thought about morality over the last 150 years.If you ask me, it really is time to move on, turn the page"
Simplest if one imagines all the world to be a stage—it’s been done before— upon which unfolds a hundred-and- fifty-year-long absurd play.

Upon that stage, out of the darkness of her life appears Manjula, aged forty-five. The spotlight is on her loneliness. She speaks aloud her thoughts to her husband. He is not fit to be seen.

“If I took you to court, I could be famous and have a case named after me and be cited for decades hereafter in lawsuits and classrooms and legal forums all over the land. Manjula versus the Union of India. Section 377. I have a dream.”

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—which is what Manjula dreams about, a phallic article indeed—reads as follows:

377: Unnatural offences: Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this Section.

“What does it mean? For starters, what does ‘against the order of nature’ mean?” The questions are posed to the world from a stage just as wide but Manjula does not hear any of the answers that have been framed over a hundred-and- fifty years of confusion on the subject. Her mind is too full of her son, still in hospital and her husband who unfortunately is not going anywhere.

“I’m going to ask Samarpan to translate 377 for me into modern Indian English.”

Always ready to help his mother, the only woman he adores, Samarpan takes an entire weekend in his hospital bed to come up with:

‘377: Unnatural offences: As per existing law, you can only fuck a choot. And only to make babies. If you poke any organ of your body into any hole of any other living being, or even if you use a condom, boy, will you get buggered. A mother poking her infant’s mouth with her nipple and loving the sensation even though her dugs are dry ought to be imprisoned for life.’ ‘Explanation: Penetration means fuck. And bugger bugger.’

That was much clearer. The boy’s language was absurd, offensive and obscene, but so was the original. Manjula thanked her son and, armed with his exegesis, returned to her comcontemplation of the different lines of argument that she could educe in a crowded court room in the case that would make her immortal.

“Milord, my husband—who is also my lord—has been buggering me, two or three times a month, for the last 20 years of our marriage. We are happily married. We have one son. He almost died last month. But since he didn’t, we are still happily married. I’m not sure what his death would have done to our conjugal relations. I initially found being buggered quite distasteful and demeaning. But because my husband, my lord, also massages my vagina with his left hand and mauls my breasts with his right at the same time as he is pounding me from the rear, I began with time to quite like the experience of being buggered. We use mustard oil. So when we have sex, I am reminded of my grandmother and her cooking. My husband is a nice man, a Brahmin, a gentleman. For starters, he ought to be imprisoned for life under 377.”

For starters, in the beginning was the word of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

“The Penal Code, Manjula, was a hundred years old before you were born.” So Manjula’s mother, a retired judge and no mean busybody herself, edifies her daughter. “It is the work of a genius— incestuous, smug—but a genius. I do not use the word loosely.”

Which word do you not use loosely— smug or incestuous or genius? I don’t know, Samarpan considers himself to be a genius.

Unlike Macaulay, Samarpan is not incestuous. He is gay. He is smug, though, and just a wee bit annoying, and may perhaps be left in hospital for one more week.

Meanwhile, in the far corner of that revolving stage that has a life of its own, Thomas Babington Macaulay is at breakfast in Calcutta’s Government House. It is April 8, 1838, and he is, if possible, even more pleased with himself than usual because he has at last finished with the Indian Penal Code. It has been sent off and is now merely waiting for Hobhouse and MacLeod to wake up to their responsibilities, to have it examined and promulgated as law. That is going to take a mere twenty- four years, but Thomas doesn’t know it yet; he feels it to be one bloody good step taken towards civilising those dusky beggars who surround the island that is Government House.

Some of them of course have infiltrated Thomas’ establishment as well and actually make his existence quite pleasurable. He wouldn’t know what to do without them. Muzammil, for example, who at that very moment has brought in fresh muffins and a nice new pot of Chinese tea, is quite, Thomas feels, the perfect second khansamah, discreet, silent, restful. The Indian Penal Code would do him a world of good.

Ah, but if Thomas only knew how on the contrary the perfect second khansamah would be simply appalled by the Code’s obtuseness. For the discreet and dusky Muzammil is bisexual. They are everywhere, to be found wherever life is. He is sort of homosexual, part time, so to speak. He and Lalji the storekeeper’s assistant find living to be more pleasurable when they can couple twice a week. They are both happily married and between them have six wives, seven sons and eight daughters. Their special relationship too is discreet and dusky; their world sees them as good friends—rare bum-chums, if you will. They would not have it otherwise— indeed, if probed, would deeply wonder if there could be an otherwise. As a caste Hindu, Lalji is defiled by the mere touch of Muzammil’s little finger; the khansamah’s circumcised member sends him every time, for seven generations, to Talatala, the profoundest Hindu hell, from where the correctly- intoned incantation and rightly-performed ritual bath do not fail, on every occasion, to tug him back at six in the evening, well in time to cook the books of Government House.

A tale of true love their story is; it is part of the pre-history of 377. Lalji for instance truly loves his second wife, his two youngest sons and all his daughters. And Muzammil. Whom Lalji loves most at any one given point depends, of course, among other things, on how perky his gay gene is feeling at that moment— that is to say, on how the blood is coursing at that instant in his veins, which in turn depends on the hour of the day, the day of the week, the season of the year, the phase of the moon and the position of Saturn in the heavens. Ditto Muzammil. True love has been ordained for them; what they do on sweltering afternoons amongst the serene cows in the cattle shed is their destiny, their joy, their secret and none of the world’s business. They themselves would do nothing to rock the boat but if things do turn sour, that too of course would be their karma.

“They are wise,” comments Hiranmaya to his son Samarpan, “in wanting to be left alone. Unlike someone we know.”

In response, Samarpan shuts his eyes, and with difficulty turns over in his hospital bed so that his back is to his father. He loves his parents but does wish at times that they would leave him be. Pay the hospital charges of course and thereafter, for a while, just let him alone.

Those charges. For a stay of six weeks in a shared room, the South Delhi hospital presents Samarpan with a bill of a little under Rs 9 lakh. He riffles through the sheaves, understands almost nothing, wonders why the language of science is so arcane and passes them on to his father. The treatment covers one fractured rib, a perforated lung, one broken femur, abdominal trauma resulting in rupture of the spleen and liver, acute haematemesis, anal rupture and bleeding, anal sphincter tear, fracture of the penis, tearing of the penile shaft, one broken collarbone, a perforated eardrum and severe abrasions and lacerations of the skin. A photo of his, of untraceable origin, is all over the net. It is a closeup of his face; he is unconscious, his lips, nose and eyelids are livid and swollen, not much else can be made out of his face for the blood. He is gagging on someone’s penis. Samarpan is eighteen going on twelve. His body will never fully recover, but within four months will be ripe and ready enough for further damage.

‘That’s not true and you know that. We too want to be left alone but it’s the cops and people like Pramod Swineflu who just won’t let us be,’ is what he wants to say in response to his father but that would trigger off a heart-to-heart that he’s so not in the mood for; so he keeps quiet and instead pretends to nod off so that he can daydream about that ward boy taking off his uniform. It is the surest sign of Samarpan’s recovery.

He is a genius and a virgin, Samarpan. He is also a bit of a fool. He has never either buggered or been buggered, so 377, he believes, cannot touch him for, in the absence of a telltale bruised sphincter, where is the proof? Unless he’s caught with his pants down, so to speak, and his mouth open, with another male, also with his pants down. Which is more or less what happens under the Kotla Mubarakpur flyover on the night of July 3, 2009.

That evening begins with Samarpan cruising at Defence Colony Market. His parents are away for the weekend, celebrating Pramod Swineflu’s sixtieth birthday at Neemrana. Getting them to go has been sort of touch and go; Samarpan clinches it by telling his father to agree for his mother’s sake and his mother for her own.

“You need a break, Ma.”

“Most of all from your father, I should think. The one thing nice about this weekend is that Swineflu will only join us there tomorrow morning. At least one evening free of his presence. He says he’s going to Alwar this afternoon to pick up and escort his elder sister to Neemrana. Her wealth explains his fraternal devotion.”

Their host for the weekend makes Manjula uneasy; Hiranmaya finds him revolting. Pramod Kumar is an ex-policeman, Chairman of the Residents Welfare Association, an authority, a gabbler, on how to contain the swineflu, an aficionado of middle-history Hindi film songs, of which he has a thousand on his mobile phone, each of which, depending on the appositeness of its lilt and theme, he has assigned as ring tone to a contact phone number; he is also a fund of tiresome, risqué jokes with which he has for months been trying to cosy up to Samarpan. Samarpan believes that a few more men like Pramod Swineflu would turn the whole world permanently heterosexual.

He has cruised before, Samarpan. There have been times when he has wondered whether he’s doing it correctly. His being witty and shy is no doubt the reason why it has never ended up in the earth moving for him—with an unknown somewhere, under a flyover or in a park or a ghastly public toilet. But he’s quite content, to sit on a bench in a fine drizzle, smoke cigarettes under a menacing sky, make eyes at an autorickshaw- driver while the latter scratches his balls and expectorates some paan before driving off with a couple of chattering female customers. For Samarpan, it’s a thrill even to exhibit his intent to himself.

On the evening of July 3, 2009, he is terribly excited. He has felt all day that he ought to be celebrating, making merry, letting himself go. For the day before, the Delhi High Court has declared that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, insofar as it criminalises the consensual sexual acts of adults in private, is violative of Articles 21, 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution. Samarpan rushes downstairs to find out what that means. It is impossible though to get at the grandmother’s bookshelves without first having to deal with her.

“No, just looking, you know, General Knowledge, just in case I’m waylaid in the street by a TV channel or something. Your grandson after all. Shouldn’t come across as too much of a fool.”

The TV channels in fact show the gays of Delhi painted up and parading at India Gate in celebration of the judgment. The grandmother watches, fascinated. Where did they all spring from? Samarpan watches too, half-repelled. They don’t look sexy at all. And the policemen on the scene with their staffs of bamboo, when the TV camera doesn’t catch their eye, all look ready to bugger the whole lot.

They are depressed, the cops. By declaring 377 unconstitutional, the Delhi High Court has taken some of the fun out of their lives. It was good, 377 was, for arbitrary detention, brutal harassment, torture, forced sex, male rape, eunuch rape, extortion, blackmail and general extreme mental and physical abuse. It was good because it was so slippery, it worked so well in tandem with some of the other Sections of a Code so acknowledged for its slipperiness— 293, 294, 142, 147, 268, 292, 309, 174, the list is as long as the volume.

Take Madras in May 2006; just one example out of 20,000. The police booked one Pandian under 420 for theft and sexually abused him in jail for a fortnight. So what’s new? He was a eunuch, a human being against the order of nature and, under 377, perfect fodder meat for them. He was released on bail on May 19, 2006 on condition that he should report every day to Vyasarpadi Police Station at 10 am. In fact, one police constable would come to his house to take him away every morning at eight and deposit him at home, exhausted, glum, unable to eat, at eleven at night. All day, a dozen policemen raped him in the mouth and poked those staffs of bamboo up his anus. On June 12, Pandian set himself on fire outside that same police station. While he was dying in hospital, the cops filed a case against him under 309 for attempted suicide; when he died, they switched to 174 for failure to obey the orders of a public servant.

How slippery 377 is. The cops use it against almost everybody—beggars, eunuchs, unemployable idlers at a bus stop, AIDS outreach workers, coolies, cycle-rickshaw-waalas, joggers in the park—to establish, even though it can never be in doubt, their almost limitless power to abuse their power; at the same time, partly because it is so slippery, they rarely bring up charges under that Section of the Code. They can then say—they do say—that 377 is a benign provision, a rarely used statute, so why repeal a law that is so dormant, such a sleeping beauty?

Leaving the police at India Gate to ponder over a life without 377, Samarpan selects Durgadas Basu from his grandmother’s bookshelf, it being the fattest, most vellum-bound tome, a sadomasochist’s delight in its flaunting of gilt and leather, and is carrying it to the dining table when she decrees to the TV screen, “They should be able to have it struck down by the Supreme Court. Out of that present lot, I don’t see anyone who would want to be remembered as the judge who legally brought homosexuality out on to the streets in India.”

So there he is, young Samarpan, sitting on a bench in Defence Colony Market, smoking his third cigarette despite feeling dizzy after the first two, watching that cute hulk in tight white pants buying stuff at the paanwaala’s and thinking of this and that. Of his schoolmates saying that you could tell a gay by his inability to whistle, by his womanish hips being broader than his chest, by how as a baby he couldn’t stop sucking his thumb and so before long had begun sucking something else. Samarpan wondering at the possibility at long last of freedom from all that.

“You have matches?”

The hulk is beside him on the bench, smiling. He has dimples. Fucking dimples.

How old is oral sex in India? History is silent on that crucial point. No archaeologist has ever suggested for instance that the vivid Harappa Head of the priest-king, bearded, with its eyes half-closed, captures memorably in stone the expression of a man enjoying being blown. Though of course in three-thousand-five-hundred years after Harappa, fellatio becomes respectable enough to be performed in relief, in stone, in public, indeed, in a religious place—mystifying blowjob upon blowjob on temple walls celebrate men and women taking time off for sex with men en route to laying down their souls, in the sanctum sanctorum, at the feet of Shiva or one of his comrades in the pantheon. At Khajuraho and Konarak and a dozen other temples, blowjobs and buggery adorn the walls of the abodes of gods most wise and understanding; those acts visibly are part of the order of supernature. Once upon a time, the law in India, in the golden age before Macaulay, was almost as wise.

As can be witnessed from the true love of Lalji and Muzammil. Remember them? When last seen, they were frolicking amongst the cows in a shed in Calcutta not far from where the Nakhoda Mosque will come up almost 100 years later, 500 km north-east of— and six-hundred years after—Konarak, serene in their karma while waiting for the afternoon to wane. Even though Thomas Babington is, so to speak, ready in the wings with Section 377, the lovers are discreet and for the time being nothing can touch them. For the Penal Code is not yet in force and acts against the order of nature, at least for the next twenty years, cannot be punished with imprisonment for life. So what could go wrong with their true love?

Enter a complainant.

You would need one, an outraged busybody with a medieval mind or a disgusted father-in-law on behalf of his forlorn daughter or a missionary in position, some non-CF Andrews type. But the complainant, whoever it is, soon discovers that the wise law, like an anxious god worried for his devotees, has placed some nice hurdles in his quest to bugger the cause of true love.

For one, it is quite possible that Lalji and Muzammil, for the crime, it may be reiterated, of imitating in private life the act of desire sculpted on a temple wall, cannot be tried in the same court or indeed by the same law. True justice, being wise and tending to prefer—in every epoch and all over the world—shades of grey to black and white, might just send that offended complainant to parallel systems of redressal (and, in effect, into a spin). For Muzammil is Muslim, a good God-fearing Sunni, and only Mughal law—the Sadar Nizamat Adalat—would apply in his case. Under that law, the usual discretionary punishment that is meted out for sodomy is a free ride on an ass, and, on occasion, a whipping—an ordeal, may it be noted, that would turn to pleasure were Lalji to wield the whip. And against Muzammil, the testimony of Lalji himself might be invalid because, depending on the circumstances, that same law, before Thomas Babington stepped in, might not have permitted Muslims to be prosecuted on the evidence of non-Muslims.

Against a hostile world, Lalji is equally well-protected both by his law and his religion. In 1838—in fact, ever since the dawn of justice (and desire, and sodomy), that law has flourished under the banyan tree of the Manusmriti. As in everything else about Hindu practices, it is complicated; and homosexuality, like a thousand other matters, is inextricably linked with ritual, erotics, the occult and other such distracting stuff.

Buggery, or adhorata, ‘under-love’— as Lalji will animatedly explain when pressed—either between males or between sexes, is one of the principal means of awakening the potencies of the rectal centre, the animation of which energises the artistic, creative and mystical faculties. Perversion? Against the order of nature? Chhut! Why, the anus is one of the most important chakras of the body, and constricting it, concentrating on it, stimulating it, inserting things into it—a plug, digit or member—are standard yogic-tantric disciplines based on the occult correspondence between it and the higher centres of the subtler human body.

The court, though, Lalji suspects, just might not be impressed with the argument that Muzammil buggers his fellow employee for religious reasons. Yet that does not unduly worry the storekeeper’s assistant. If the judge at the Fort William courthouse, reasons he, is a caste Hindu with some knowledge of the classic law texts, of Manu and the Arthashastra, with luck he would also be imbued with the perspective, the wisdom, of ancient legal codes, and would for instance find heinous the crime of heterosexual adultery (punishable with death), and in contrast see the sport in contingent homosexual fun (to be chastised with just a fine or loss of caste or a ritual bath). The last two punishments in any case Lalji has lived with ever since he has (wink wink) known Muzammil.

So the days pass with the two buggers worrying more—and with reason— about drought and famine and smallpox and cholera and finding employment for their unemployable sons, and husbands and dowries for their daughters. Fittingly, they are much less anxious about the likelihood of some of their progeny or their extended families being gay, about, say, the illegitimate son of an aunt’s third cousin who shares with them both the proclivity and the knack of being discreet. These things happen, they run in the blood, they would say; thus, after the manner of a future generation, they would attribute his conduct to their common genes.

And then one fine day in 1861, a bunch of Whites bring in a White and utterly alien morality to overwhelm the law courts of the land.

“The Penal Code,” says Manjula’s mother when she feels that no one has paid her any attention for quite a while, “according to Macaulay was not a body of ethics. ‘It must content itself,’ he wrote, ‘with keeping men from doing positive harm, and must leave to public opinion and to teachers of morality and religion the office of furnishing men with motives for doing positive good.’”

They are all at her dining table on the ground floor. They have just discovered that climbing the stairs hurts Samarpan a fair bit in the lower abdomen. No one is paying Manjula’s mother any attention because they have better things to do. More specifically, they are taken up with being appalled at the thought of perhaps having to fix up a room for the boy on the ground floor, well within the grandmotherly orbit. How will he ever recover in the absence of any mental peace? But Manjula’s mother has been a judge of the High Court and the inattentiveness of her audience has never deterred her. So she continues, pensive and beady-eyed, to compel the walls to incline to her point of view. “But the more I think of it, the more certain I am that the Penal Code was part of the Macaulay strategy—stratagem—to alienate the people from their world, thereby making them easier to govern.”

“If you don’t want that tea, don’t drink it. Then I’ll help you up the stairs.”

That pain in his son’s abdomen, hopes Hiranmaya, is not some hitherto undetected damage to his kidneys. The last ultrasound at the hospital at least seemed to have indicated an all-clear. Hiranmaya is due to go off to Europe for a couple of weeks—Brussels, Oslo, Amsterdam—on a professional junket, but is scared to leave his son. The boy’s face is an open book of gay porn. The surest sign of his mental recovery, feels his father, is that on it can be read his impatience with the elders of his family, his eagerness to be alone so that he can connect once more with the world from which had emerged the decoy who had had him beaten up almost to death. They need to get him upstairs before he discovers that his mother has hidden his second mobile phone.

She might not even remember where she has stashed it away. For in the last six weeks she has been more incapable than ever of focusing on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. How to establish that her son’s gayness is not the fallout of his love for her, but the fault of his father’s genes? That is what has been buzzing around day and night in her head. She is as certain of it as of her motherhood, but how to prove it in a crowded courtroom? And submerged in all that welter in her skull, bobbing up every now and then like a ping pong ball, is the thought that it is no great matter—why he is how he is a mere distraction in the game.

Father helps son up the stairs. Samarpan’s body feels thin and fragile, smells of ill-health. He is delighted to be back home and, humming to himself, rushes (slowly) to his laptop. He is instantly annoyed to find that it isn’t working. “Have we cut off the internet as a security measure?” he demands waspishly of his mother.

She doesn’t respond because most things, entering her skull in one ear, exit at once through some other aperture, usually a nostril, and leave behind no trace save for a dim, not unpleasant, humming. It is how she has survived, since the age of two, the conversation of her mother. “The hospital clearly said that you shouldn’t go out for some days but I’m sure your friends could visit you here.”

“Better to talk to them in the flesh than on a screen,” adds her husband. Oh, perhaps shouldn’t’ve said in the flesh. Sure to send the thoughts of this wretched boy careering off in the direction of the Kotla Mubarakpur flyover.

Actually, the one person that Samarpan aches most to meet at that moment he can’t invite home. For one, he doesn’t know either his name or where he stays. All he has for him is a phone number—Samarpan’s own, because the other stole it—and the nickname that Samarpan thinks of him by, Dimples. Within the first hour of his getting home, from his grandmother’s phone, he’s called his old number twenty-two times. “Out of coverage area,” says a robotic, slightly retarded, female voice. Please send me the photo, he next texts him. And then repeatedly, fearing that he has used far too many words, Send photo. Send photo.

Parents and son have not discussed the events of the night of July 3, 2009. Attacked by miscreants, Samarpan manfully resists, they steal his wallet and mobile phone and enraged, teach him a lesson for trying to be manly, so goes the official version. The parents hope that by not talking it over, they will help it to recede into the depths; that with each passing day, the boy will slough off his gay skin to emerge a happy, handsome heterosexual.

But suddenly they are everywhere, gays. No doubt the outcome of the High Court judgment, they begin to take up large amounts of airtime on TV.

“According to the estimates of 2006,” says a painted face to the family assembled around the ground floor dining table, feasting on Pramod Swineflu’s welcome- home carrot halwa, “there are twenty-five lakh gays in India. But, at a conservative one percent of the population, the actual number who have had homosexual experiences will be over ten million. Because of that imbecile 377, how can you call ten million fellow citizens criminals?” At that point, the camera, no doubt unable to bear the excitement goggling out of the eyes above the paint, pans to a crush of fancy dresses, peacock feathers and V for Victories. “They are farmers, lawyers, academics, civil servants, CEOs of enterprises, actors, dancers, writers, doctors, sportsmen, politicians, priests of various hues, sweepers, TV anchors, bus drivers, police constables, shopkeepers, jewellers, school teachers, fashion designers, hotel managers, pilots, engineers, tourists, terrorists, godmen, students, judges, drug addicts, guards, cooks, sailors, Army jawans—”

“Okay okay I get the point, Paintbox.” Hiranmaya to the TV.

“—Are we lesser human beings? We don’t make bombs, we don’t behead people on YouTube, we just want to be left alone to express our love. It is love. And you call yourself a Welfare State?”

What’s in a name, Paintbox, is the correct response to be made at this juncture. Nobody says so but everyone around the dining table more or less thinks it. The elders are all horribly relieved that Samarpan is not in fancy dress and declaiming on TV. Manjula in particular is even more distracted than usual at the sight of such a large congregation of homosexuals. ‘What an impressive concentration of the gay gene,’ says she to herself as she watches a set of painted lips lock into another.

‘But is there really one, a gay gene, that is,’ is what she has so often enquired of the world. She asks it again of the clothes and reports and medication that have returned with her son from the hospital; ‘and if so, am I, the mother, its carrier?’ Nothing is certain. In the weeks that Samarpan’s been away convalescing, she’s been reading up; she’s looked up stuff on the Net and like a thief, riffled through the shelves in his room for illumination. They are quick, she and her husband; guessing his password—‘ gayatrimantra’—and hacking his laptop open takes them three minutes and seventeen seconds. She is appalled— and Hiranmaya vaguely titillated— by the gay porn sites that their son has been visiting for years. “How absolutely disgusting. We shouldn’t be doing this, you know,” says he, furiously clicking away at one link after another to glimpse as much as he can of a new world before the spell is broken and she asks him to stop.

It puzzles, annoys and depresses her to read so much and yet learn nothing about the gay gene. No one is certain whether it even exists and if it does, how it is transmitted. No one knows for sure whether homosexuality is genetic or the result of environmental factors or some unfathomable combination of the two. Penguins and bonobo chimpanzees— in fact, over four hundred species of animals—engage in homosexual behaviour and yet no one can definitely aver that gayness in the animal world is an expression of true sexual desire and not of a need to establish dominion.

“That does sound,” Hiranmaya murmurs to himself, “like the British in India.”

Manjula relearns en passant that the cootchie-cooing of one male baboon to another is, even while being natural, an act against the order of nature because they are making love without making babies. Then she is distracted from her pursuit of she no longer remembers what—ah yes, the gay gene—by the nugget of information that human females tend more towards bisexuality than males and furthermore, change their sexual orientation during their lives more often than men. How odd. And then, what the hell.

She is next diverted from the bisexuality of the human female by the fickleness of the fruit fly. It switches from heterosexual to homosexual when a single gene in it is altered. Further, when the ambient temperature is raised to 30 degrees Celsius plus, modified male fruit flies lose interest in females and become even more receptive to other males.

Which single gene? Do human beings have it?” Hiranmaya has no idea what she’s talking about. Men are so obtuse. She explains. He takes aeons to follow.

“If they were ever to isolate the gay gene, Manjula, foeticide in India would go up a thousand fold. Doctor saab, is my foetus gay? Hey Ram and tauba tauba. Then inter the bugger hugger mugger.”

From Samarpan’s storehouse, Manjula gleans enough to be permanently confused not only about the gay gene but also about 377.

His parents note with bemused tenderness that the boy has converted his old Class XII Geography exercise copy into a scrapbook of the history of that Section of the Penal Code. They pore over it for an entire Sunday. 377 is bewildering. It is small consolation to them to learn that for over a hundred-and-fifty years, it has perplexed everyone whom it has touched.

“I wish you’d stop laughing. Really.”

“Yes I really should. It is so against the order of nature.”

Hiranmaya’s sniggering is in fact a sort of nervous reaction. He is not so much amused as appalled at what the courts discuss. At first glance—even at second—it is hard to distinguish between their subject matter and that of Samarpan’s gay porn sites; he has the impression that a second set of actors, wearing penguin robes and judges’ wigs, has emerged on to that stage as wide as the world, has surrounded the players on the gay sites to analyse and pass judgment on their activities.

It is from them that he learns that in 1884, for instance, the court of the Session Judge of Mysore decreed that a blowjob was not buggery. ‘The act charged against the accused, of having opened a child’s mouth, put in his private parts and completed his lust, does not constitute the offence of sodomy, as it does not constitute carnal intercourse with penetration, under the section.’ Ergo, at least in 1884, in Mysore, one could fellate and not be imprisoned for life under 377.

“I do not understand, my lord.” Manjula is still spotlit in the loneliness of that stage of her life. “The history of 377 is revolting and unremittingly obscene. It is an endless and abominable narrative of gratification without consent, of rape and the sexual assault of minors. It has nothing to do with homosexual love between consenting adults, with the temperament of my son. It just provides amusement to people like my husband. And I see from my son’s scrapbook that over the decades, different courts have interpreted 377 in such a manner that it has now come to prohibit only those acts engaged in by homosexuals. Perhaps with evolution some men will grow vaginas and at last their coupling will not go against the order of nature.” She pauses to sigh heavily. “If Macaulay was a genius, then why are things so confused?”

Well, one can’t really blame one short, fat Englishman for everything. She realises that. But one can try. Because it is not poor Manjula alone; everyone is confused.

In 1925, for instance, the High Court of Sind, disagreeing with the conclusion reached by Mysore in 1884, begins to draw in the noose for poor gays. It decides that no, 377 does cover oral sex, that carnal intercourse against the order of nature includes fellatio which — the judgment thunders—is ‘the sin of Gomorrah,’ ‘a vice,’ according to Justices Kincaid and Kennedy, ‘less pernicious than the sin of Sodom.’

“Oh, to spend,” murmurs Hiranmaya to his son’s scrapbook, “six months of the year in Sodom and the other half in Gomorrah and bollocks to the parting of the Red Sea.”

377, it has been noted by a thousand wise men over the years, speaks only of certain vague and ill-defined acts but succeeding judgments across the decades have narrowed its impact down to menace only a specific group of people— those poor sods, gays. So in 1992, for instance, the Madras High Court decreed that Brother John Anthony, the sub-warden of a boarding home attached to St Mary’s Higher Secondary School,Tuticorin, was guilty under 377 because he used to get the boys of that hostel to jerk him off; he could in theory (and should in practice) have been put away for a hundred years. Instead, the effect of the activities of Brother Fagin has been that after 1992, one cannot in private, out of love, stroke and give pleasure to a lover without running the risk of being jailed for life.

And in the same year, the Gujarat High Court said that coming between someone’s thighs too was in principle punishable with life imprisonment. The language of that judgment is, well, unambiguous:

‘In intercourse between the thighs, the visiting male organ is enveloped at least partially by the orgasm (sic) visited the thighs, the thighs are kept together and tight. As could be seen from the dictionary meaning the word ‘penetrate’ means ‘find access into or through, pass through’. When the male organ is inserted between the thighs kept together and tight, is there no penetration? The word ‘insert’ means ‘place, fit, thrusts’. Therefore, if the male organ is ‘inserted’ or ‘thrust’ between the thighs, there is ‘penetration’ to constitute unnatural offence.’

‘Since [the] statute does not specify any particular opening to which penetration can be made, penetration into any orifice of one’s body except the vaginal opening of a female is sufficient for establishment of the crime.’

This is Samarpan’s world. What in the scrapbook transfixes the parents and hinders them from facing for any length of time the catastrophe that has befallen him is the gusto, the relish, with which the courts wade into the violence that is the lifeblood, the sap, of that netherworld that he has so happily entered.

“Pramod Swineflu is here. For the last half an hour, he’s been discussing 377 and the High Court judgment with your grandmother. And how to have it repealed in the Supreme Court.”

“That freak. He looks like someone who’s just eaten your mom. I’m resting and simply cannot be disturbed. And if he comes up, Papa, I’m going to dress up in some wedding finery and jump off the roof, is that understood.”

“I’m going down to tell them that you’ve already done so. Then when they rush out, you jump and land on his head. How about that, is that understood.”

The two downstairs have been so intent on impressing each other with their acuity of thought that it is unlikely that they would have rushed out for a teenager in a nosedive. Deleting 377, Pramod Swineflu has said for forty minutes in twenty-eight different ways, will be misconstrued as providing unfettered licence to homosexuality. As it stands, it in fact prevents the spread of HIV. Indian society by and large loathes gays coming out. Purdah must be maintained. The state must protect public health and morality. Gays spread disease and should be punished under 269 and 270 of the Penal Code. “I am entirely in agreement with a certain Mr Radhakrishnan when he argued in court that criminal laws are necessary to prevent social degeneration. Every organ of the body has a designated function. The mouth is used for eating and for making sound. The anus is used for the excretion of waste. The body requires—”

‘The anus is also used for making sound.’

“—its different parts to work in tandem, each organ performing the functions preordained by nature. The use of the anus or the mouth for sexual activity goes against the normal functions of the human body and the order of nature; society will put its foot down and stamp out such abuse.”

Pramod Swineflu roams around the country doing a fair amount of that stamping himself. Six months later, for instance, he is going to rush off to Aligarh to crusade against Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras.

All eyes are to turn now to that stage as wide as the world to behold the tragedy, the replay, of the individual at odds with his society. The hero is small, bearded, a sixty-four-year- old Reader in Modern Indian Languages at Aligarh Muslim University; he steps into the spotlight in a jacket and tie. His hubris is his self-confidence in proclaiming to the wide world his gayness; he announces, “I love males. You want to make something out of it?”

The world does. On February 8, 2010, it, in the form of some media riffraff and some Pramod Swineflu clones, storms into his apartment on campus and catches Siras in flagrante with another male, a poor sod of a rickshaw-puller. They click and film the couple and distribute the photographs and video clips to newspapers and TV channels. Aligarh goes ballistic; its outrage however is fuelled not by them but by Siras. He loses his job and is asked by the university to vacate his apartment. He goes to court against being fired. Meanwhile, crowds of Pramod Swineflu clones jeer and abuse him all day, demonstrate against him, organise processions that foulmouth, revile and thunder against what he represents. The scum have a great time. He moves to another part of town. They follow him. He speaks of migrating to the United States, the land of the equal and the free where he says that he will not be persecuted. Instead, on April 7 the same year, he is found dead in his new flat. Poisoned. By person or persons unknown. Perhaps himself.

So what’s new?

Injustice and tragedy are older than the hills. Samarpan’s grandmother has not been impressed with anything that the ex-policeman spouts, and with hard-luck stories even less than with medieval-minded crusaders. The public comprises obtuse and dangerous individuals like Swineflu, it cannot be entrusted with anything, thank God for the courts and their enlightened judges who must never be made to retire and instead should be rewarded with even higher salaries and grander colonial bungalows—that is her view.

Oddly enough, it is a funny-mirror image of the opinion held by many involved in the struggle against 377. They believe that the cops will never let go of that Section of the Code out of the love of a cowherd for a lactating cow; the police is a merciless, occasionally malevolent and immensely powerful beast. It can only be subdued by another even more so. Hence the recourse to the courts.

“Looks like our patient is not going to come down, so I’ll go up to look in on him.”

For an ex-policeman—or perhaps because he was till recently active in the force—Pramod Swineflu is in poor health. He is short of breath after taking the stairs to the first floor. Samarpan is nowhere to be seen. That doesn’t deter the ex-policeman from snooping around in the boy’s room. Hiranmaya, intrigued, observes him from behind the screen door to the terrace where his stress has taken him to smoke one of Samarpan’s cigarettes. Samarpan himself, alarmed, watches the intruder through the one centimetre available between a bathroom door and door- frame. Manjula is just outside the room, about to enter to replace her son’s scrapbook on his table.

Pramod Swineflu’s mobile phone goes off in his pocket. Its loudness startles them all. ‘Aadmi hoon aadmi se pyaar karta hoon…’ belts out Mukesh from within his pocket. He takes out his phone but doesn’t answer it, doesn’t even look to see who it is, but long before he can switch it off, Manjula, entering, exclaims, “But that’s so familiar! Where’s it from?”

Pehchaan,” elucidates Pramod Swineflu, grinning ferally at her, “Filmfare award, 1970. Manoj Kumar, Babita, Balraj Sahni.” He raises a hand in a limp farewell and begins to back out of the room. “Music by Shankar Jaikishan. Have to go. Forgotten my insulin.” He is on the stairs when the phone rings again. He takes it out, it seems to slip out of his hand, for they hear it clattering on the steps, next him cursing and the song happily continuing, several bars of it, and, long after he passes out of earshot, somehow even hanging back in the air, lingering like guilt.

“What an oddball.” So inaugurates Hiranmaya a rare—and brief—family conference in his son’s room. It is only typical that neither parent speaks of what is uppermost in their mind, namely, that it seems to them that Swineflu in his phone had allotted that Mukesh song to Samarpan; the call therefore that the ex-policeman was so reluctant to take could only have been made from the teenager’s mobile that had been taken from him on the night of July 3. Then they see from their son’s eyes that he has known that fact all along.

Those mobile phones play an important part in the story. Their text messages in December 2008 in fact begin it.

‘No matter how empty your life is, you can fill it with meaning by first being thankful that you still have one. Good morning! Have a great Monday! Your P.’

‘Are your troubles weighing you down? Shrug them off, pick up some new ones! Take care, I am there! Good morning, young man! Your P.’

‘Friendship is the dew drop trembling on the petal of a tulip. You and I can take it forward. Rise and shine and taste that drop, young fellow! Your P.’

‘The essentials of life are something to do, someone to love and something to hope for. Which of these is missing in your life? Don’t worry, I am here, there and everywhere! Good morning and have a great Thursday! Your P.’

‘You are nature’s red red rose. But who is your gardener? He is waiting for you. Your P.’

At last, on Saturday at 5.45 am, Samarpan responded, ‘Just who the fuck is this, exactly?’

His P—whose success rate in the course of a long and distinguished career in lust, with boy, girl and beast, has been a hundred per cent—in seven months makes no headway with Samarpan. He offers the teenager an Apple iPhone 3G. Samarpan accepts it gratefully and gives the old phone, gift- wrapped, to his father on his birthday. Swineflu calls his heart’s desire fourteen times a day. Heart’s Desire almost always lets the phone ring; once or twice he picks up only to pretend to be someone else. “Hi. I think he’s masturbating in the toilet. May I take a message?”

Undeterred, Swineflu proposes that he escort Samarpan to a first-rate psychologist- sexologist in Pune whom he knows well. “A good sexy lady. She tells you to focus on women. She shows you photographs of Katrina Kaif and then some nudes and she talks sexy too. She offers you injections of sildenafil, trimix, papaverine, tadanafil. So in our second session, I just asked her to fuck me. She called the police. Set a thief to catch a thief. Let me get an appointment for us.”

Incapable of hearing ‘no’ for an answer and even though he can’t swim, Swineflu takes to hanging about in the changing rooms of the Club on the days when Samarpan does his thirty lengths. He fits in well with all those middle- aged men, the gays in denial, who are in the nude animatedly chatting politics while discreetly eyeing wang sizes. Swineflu is incensed that demure Samarpan changes in a cubicle and with a towel about his waist.

Unfazed, Swineflu asks him what size undies he wears and showers him with Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. The undies are really very nice and each time that he is wearing one of them, in return all that Samarpan is required to do is to wink at his benefactor. He does so, but with a knowing, patronising leer that has nothing in it of reciprocated desire. He is to learn that Hell hath no fury like a messed-up, closet bisexual scorned.

The bait that Pramod Swineflu chooses is a lad from his village, gorgeous, mindless, at heart a good soul, in awe of people who can read and write, happy to fuck anything that moves. They had first met in 2004 on the policeman’s last visit to his grandfather; the lad had escorted him to a cattle shed and, glowingly proud to be a mentor, shown him how to mount a calf.

Unknown to the lad, a forefather of his, Khandu by name, is actually in Samarpan’s scrapbook. In 1933, to cite the judgment of the First Class Magistrate of Multan, ‘Khandu was seen having carnal intercourse against the order of nature by placing his penis inside the nostril of a bullock tied to a tree.’ Spanning the generations, Khandu’s genes have surfaced once more both in the lad’s love of cattle and his dimples. For him, the world is divided into the herders and the herded and Pramod Swineflu is so clearly one of the former; his own duty is to please as many of the other beasts as he can and when required, of course the herder himself.

On the evening of July 3, 2009, he does not quite know what is expected of him. All to the good; too many instructions and Dimples, perennially looking around to see who wants it bad, forgets all of them. Oblivious of the drizzle, the lightning and thunder, he walks with Samarpan from Defence Colony Market to the Kotla Mubarakpur flyover; he is pleased at the look of nervous, rapturous desire on the teenager’s face; there’s a rich cow to be milked here, boy.

His expectations from the evening do not include the goons waiting under the flyover.

He takes them on, he loves a brawl. From the shadows, Swineflu hisses at him to back off; Samarpan recognises that voice. That is not part of the plan at all. “Take a photo, take a photo,” sputters Samarpan to Dimples. Incensed at how Dimples has made a hash of it, Swineflu joins the goons in attacking the boy. Trembling, Dimples fiddles with the boy’s phone, fortuitously clicks during the next flash of lightning, then pockets it; it is a nice model, an Apple iPhone 3G. Aghast, he watches Swineflu sit on the unconscious boy’s chest to take the photographs of that battered face that he later is to dispatch all over the net.

“You fuck off. I don’t want to see you again either here or in the village. You hear?”

“Yes sir. But how will I join the government job that you promised me?”

“First I’m going to bugger your wife for a whole year while you sit and watch. Then we’ll see.”

“Yes sir.”

Depressed, alone with the fractured and bleeding body, Dimples searches for numbers on the Apple 3G, takes 15 seconds to read ‘Papa’, and calls.

“A hit and run. No me, I’m a passerby. My name?...Musafir.”

He is nonplussed that the parents are at Neemrana and will take three hours to arrive. Reluctant, apprehensive, he nevertheless follows Hiranmaya’s shrieked-out instructions, speaks to the doctors whom the father calls, takes the son to hospital. He does save the boy’s life.

And help take Swineflu’s.

It takes Dimples some hours though to read the two text messages that Samarpan sends him on returning home from hospital, half a day to be certain that they mean the same thing, and a full week to locate in the mobile phone the photograph that they refer to. Its beauty stirs, dimly, some emotions even in Dimples’ skull.

In the perfect white light of that flash of lightning, the camera has caught Swineflu with upraised arm, a bicycle chain wrapped around his fist, about to strike a cowering Samarpan held fast by a couple of goons. Dimples takes a day to work out how to send the photo, and then, delighted with modern technology, sends it thirty-one times. Adding a text, Samarpan conveys it to his parents: ‘What more evidence do we need?’ Hiranmaya’s uncontrollable first reaction is sorrow that neither wife nor son will ever recognise that message to be a quotation from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Over the next few months, leisurely, meticulously, without exchanging a single phrase that refers directly to the subject, the family together conspires to kill Swineflu.

Hiranmaya to Manjula: “We should return Swineflu’s bowl. Doesn’t look nice. The one in which he’d sent us that fabulous carrot halwa God knows how many weeks ago.”

Samarpan to Manjula: “You can’t return the bowl just like that. Doesn’t look nice. Cook him something.”

Manjula to Samarpan: “I’ll make him some moong dal halwa. It’s his favourite.’

Manjula to Hiranmaya: “You’d have to help me get the best ingredients.”

From his pharmaceutical world, Hiranmaya brings her the anti-depressant Dothiepin and leaves the pills in the kitchen next to the gas burner. Manjula puts enough of it in the halwa to kill an entire cricket team. She is patriotic and does have the Indian team in mind. Just to make sure, she adds extra dollops of ghee, sugar and crushed almonds to the halwa.

Husband and wife take it across to C Block in the afternoon of February 24, 2010. India is playing a One-Day cricket match in Gwalior against South Africa and nubile naked women could perform cartwheels in the streets and no one would notice. Swineflu too is in front of his TV and not too happy to be distracted from it even by the halwa. To immediately get rid of its bearers, he begins to wolf it down without taking his eyes off the screen, absent-mindedly, every now and then, going “Wah-wah!” in appreciation of its taste. His guests sit with him to wait for the Dothiepin to take effect.

“Excuse me,” says Hiranmaya to a dying Swineflu and, using his handkerchief, extracts from the other’s pocket his mobile phone. He checks to see whether the incriminating photograph is in place all over the net and then carefully sends a text message to Swineflu’s thousand contact numbers: I am sorry. I see no other way of saying so. They leave discreetly, in passing noting with pride the jingoistic hysteria on the screen.

Manjula needs to have the last word. She is blue and must speak to someone; but she is in fact so blue that under the spotlight she remains tongue-tied, soundlessly weeping.

Like the genuine article, she knows not why she is so sad.

She is partly blue, she realises, because her dreams of becoming immortal by means of a court case have receded into the blue. In her son’s scrapbook, she has encountered her alter-ego, Grace Jayamani, who in 1980 told the Karnataka High Court that she wanted a divorce because she was sick to death of her husband buggering her. She got it. But Manjula doesn’t want a divorce; she just wants to be famous. Besides, Hiranmaya has changed.

He wants to be buggered. He is gloomier than ever. From his conference in Brussels, he has morosely returned with an expensive dildo that he bought in a dark mood in Rembrandtplein. “For too long have I lived divorced from the real world,” he dejectedly tells his wife, “and now it is time to feel that ivory tower in my colon. You must help me, be my Macaulay, the Raj, the late Swineflu, the police force, 377 and the entire Penal Code.”

Then again, both husband and wife are blue because that wretched 377 will never go away. Even when it has dropped out of the statute book— which it will, one day in 2019 or in the year 2525—it will wriggle out of there only to worm its way back to where it came from, the skulls of Pramod Swineflu clones; it will settle down there once more, curl up and wait for the resurgence of the right, intolerant, bigoted moment. Both the parents believe, individually and separately, that one possible answer to the worm would be to catch them young, the school children— at the age of nine or so—and teach them to be gay.

And finally, the mother is blue because the wretched son is blue. Even at the sunny Lodi Road crematorium during the last rites for Pramod Swineflu, where no one looks as though he’s been wasting his time weeping and the moustached middle-aged men are chatting about politics, where Samarpan makes eye contact with Dimples four-hundred and six times in twenty-one minutes, the teenager is so thrilled that he becomes depressed: is this all? This tingling, this longing for the postponement of the fulfillment of desire, in the decades to come, is this all that I can look forward to? Sitting in the sun and that fragrant woodsmoke, as he sinks slowly into gloom, he can see his father telling him that he is blue because it runs in the family.

(Author’s Note: I’d like to thank Anand Grover, Amritananda Chakravorty and Ranjit Mankeshwar for all their help.)

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